They fall like leaves, always. Papery-thin and tossed with the wind. Greenish-brown and folding in on a thousand edges within themselves, the brittlebugs always fall in early June.
When the wind is warm and everything is singing with summer. When the heat keeps the smog at its thickest. When the air is especially hard to breathe.
They always fall unexpectedly. Always in the middle of some other event, like they wait until no one is looking and then right then! they flutter down.
This particular event is a school gathering. All two-thousand-something of Academy Prep are gathered on the rusty bleachers of the school auditorium. The sky is forget-me-not, the sun is butter. The smell is sweat and hot rubber soles.
She is looking for something more interesting than the rag of brown boy’s hair in front of her. She looks to her left: more kids and their voices, like wind hitting the inside of an empty glass vase. She looks to her right: these ones are pulling the shirt collar of the boy in front of them. He has decided he doesn’t enjoy that.
A voice appears loudly in the auditorium. The principal is speaking over the intercom. Few are listening. She decides that listening to the principal is her most interesting option, but that’s before they begin to fall. To tumble down through the air like failing bomber planes.
As the first one is noticed, suddenly the principal is even less interesting. Little living ashes, twisting and creeping through the air, start to appear everywhere. At first, there is silence, even the principal stops her announcement to gaze at the scene around her. It’s as if there is some silent vigil for the bugs and their appearance, like the whole world has stopped to stare at them.
The first one lands on the boy’s head in front of her. The brittlebug struggles, caught in the coarse ropes of his hair, then tumbles down onto his shoulder and breaks.
It crumbles like paper over a flame, the edges seeming to curl in on itself as its spindly legs struggle for purchase on open air. She finds it haunting, how helpless it is, but the thought of disturbing its death seems cruel.
The brittlebug struggles for another moment, twitches, lies still as the boy stands with the rest of the school. It falls off his shoulder and onto the silver bleacher, looking like a brown-green stain for a moment, and then is crushed by a passing foot.
The principal is telling everyone to walk calmly inside as they swat at the falling brittlebugs with annoyance. She remains for a minute, waiting for the crowd to pass so she can see the brittlebugs for a little longer. They don’t stop falling, or breaking when they hit the bleachers. The lucky ones crawl for a few seconds, elated at having survived the descent, then are snuffed out by a passing breeze.
She wonders if they know how unfortunate they are, to be fragile in a world so calloused. Even the wind is an enemy to them.
Someone calls her name and she turns to the sound, to the crowd ambling away. The crowd is homogenous, one single swatting, angrily-walking entity. They must know that swatting at the brittlebugs will do nothing, so why do they do it? Why do they insist on causing pain to an already doomed thing?
Her name again, and this time she goes, trying but failing to avoid stepping on the brittlebugs.
Her father uses such words as “affairs”, “idealistic”, “monumental” and “adhere to.” He doesn’t seem to have a sense of when people aren’t listening, but continues to speak anyway. He wears flannel flirts, two buttons undone, and his cough is incessant. The coughs are almost as frequent as the words leaving his mouth.
He was talking about the air a moment ago, about the smog and pollution. About how it hurt his lungs and made it hard to breathe. He blamed it on the government, he blamed it on God, hell, he blamed it on hipsters.
Now it was the brittlebugs. About the mess they made, the way they got stuck in everything. Hair. Car doors. Underneath shoes.
They should exterminate them, he says. They could land a man on the moon, but couldn’t get rid of a pest problem, he says. Ridiculous, he says. And coughs.
He tries to hide it, but she has seen the blood. He always coughs with a handkerchief now, careful to cover it with his hands so the red doesn’t show through. He is sloppy this time and she sees a portion of it, like crushed pomegranate seeds between his fingers.
He doesn’t notice that she is staring at him. He wouldn’t like that. Her father says that she should play with the neighborhood kids more. She decides to listen to keep the peace.
Outside is different now. The sky is dusty miller, the sun is blood orange. The concrete is still seething from the day’s heat, but quietly now. The street has a carpeting of brittlebug corpses. She hates the crisp it makes every time she steps, the rustling that sighs every time she shuffles her feet. But there’s no avoiding this, she decides. It is an inevitable result of their lives: to fall, die, and then to be stepped on. She wonders if they are concerned at all the damage being done to their already frail bodies. Do they cry in anger or disbelief from whatever brittlebug afterlife they’re living in?
Is there a brittlebug afterlife? Is there an afterlife? She doesn’t know what happens to people when they die so how would she know about the brittlebugs? Was it strange that she was more concerned about brittlebug beyond?
The so-called “kids” her father was referring to are standing in a circle, all looking down at one singular point. She stands in the circle, her arms half behind her back because she doesn’t know where to put them.
The kids are prodding a live brittlebug. Its walk is slow and pained, its body tilting to the side with every step. They laugh as someone taps it with the tip of their shoe, breaking a wing and rendering it crippled. The brittlebug struggles on its side, its legs pleading for solid ground.
She doesn’t like this game, this display of callousness. She wants to say something to make them stop, but the words catch in her throat like molasses. Their laughing gets louder, the brittlebug weaker.
They seem to notice she is uncomfortable, so like predator on prey, they pounce.
Kill it, they say. Finish it. It’s just a bug.
It’s going to die anyway.
And they’re right, it is going to die. It’s already beginning to slow, its legs churning instead of kicking. But she doesn’t want to, as inevitable as its end may be.
She has this thought, her foot hovering over its body, and then coming down softly with a light crunch. The kids cheer and she feels sick. There is a green-brown stain left on her.
The days pass and not much has changed. The brittlebugs fall less and less everyday. More and more are smashed everyday. Her father stills wears flannels, he still coughs, though admittedly the coughs are worse than usual. He’s begun to wash a handkerchief everyday to clean the blood from it. Most of them are pink now.
She has killed many more brittlebugs since her first time. Enough to carpet a whole street, maybe an auditorium. Some of the murders are accidental, some are purposeful. She feels a similar dull guilt with both now.
The TV is on now, her father is talking to it, of course; his two buttons down, his pink handkerchief close to his face in preparation. The TV is discussing brittlebugs and some of their many qualities: their size, their shape, their color, their ubiquity, their purpose.
Her father is scoffing, a few fresh drops of blood staining his white rag. He is complaining about the air, the smog, his job, the color of his handkerchiefs.
She is sitting, listening. Wishing she were somewhere else, but not knowing where. Her hands are sitting lightly on her lap, her hair feels heavy on her head, the light from the TV is blinding. Her father suggests she does something instead of just sit there, like she always does. There are kids her age performing at concert halls, winning medals, doing things. She thought that that might not be too hard. All she had to do to impress him was do a thing.
She is at the door, her hand is turning the brass knob and the TV distracts her for a moment before she leaves. It is still discussing the qualities of brittlebugs.
New studies have found.
Brittlebugs help to cleanse the air.
They help to reduce smog and pollution.